Sunday, December 14, 2014

What New World Sommeliers Need to Know About Old World Italian Wine

This came up last week over a bottle of Nebbiolo. I was in discussion with industry folk and the Old World/New World subject came up. With a recent surge of young people into the world of wine and with many of them advancing up the ranks of the business, especially on the floors of restaurants, someone asked me what I thought were the key markers for the new crop and asked for suggestions that they might implement for a happy, healthy and meaningful career in the wine business, especially in the Italian wine list-making department.

This first thing I needed to do was to plot the people and find some kind of pattern. I came up with these five. A typical aspirant:
✓ Has been put in charge of a wine list which is predominantly Italian.
✓ Doesn’t really know what styles of wine they like because their tasting experience is rudimentary.
✓ Wants to appear knowledgeable so industry salespeople don’t take advantage of them.
✓ Wishes to be responsive to experienced wine customers and at the same time be open to new styles trends and younger incoming customers.
✓ Needs to keep this job and also move up the career ladder.

With this is mind, I’m sharing these observations. Mind you, they are in no way complete. But they will offer the open-minded with a good starting point and probably a happier career.

Start with the fundamentals. That would be, find a good Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Prosecco. Don’t try and reinvent those categories. There is a reason they sell well. They are enjoyed by a wide range of diners. Oh, and they make money for your boss, which will offer you better job security.

Chianti – Find a nice Classico or two. Something like Badia a Coltibuono or Felsina. These are well known and respected wines. If you want to go outside of the Classico zone, something like the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina is a good choice and reasonably priced. The new wine drinker can get into wines like these as well as the well-seasoned enthusiast. And chances are they might have heard about these wines.

Pinot Grigio – The wine we all love to hate – except for the accountant, which is sometimes the spouse of the owner. Do yourself a favor and find a good affordable one, like Lageder or Scarpetta. These wines have “somm-appeal” while also enjoying favor with a wide range of wine drinkers. Not every wine has to be esoteric. Wines like these leave you with time to sell the more obscure offerings.

Prosecco – again, often the object of ridicule, so much that Franciacorta and Trentino sparkling wines are enjoying a surge in popularity as contra-Prosecco wines. They have their place, but there is a reason Prosecco rose as it did. It was because someone found these wines to be delicious and enjoyable. And as Bobby Stuckey says, we are “Hospitalians.” So for Heaven’s sake, offer your guests some good quality Prosecco like Nino Franco, Adami or Ruggeri from the Valdobbiadene appellation. You don’t have to scrape the bottom of the Prosecco barrel to find good values. And again, these wines will sell themselves and free you to blaze the trails for some of the lesser known wines.

Moscato – Just like Riesling, Moscato can be fruity and high in acid. Very pleasant for folks who don’t like wines bone dry. Not everyone is the same and their tastes need to be considered without dumbing the wine list down. Some of my favorites from the Asti DOCG appellation are Saracco, Vietti and Marenco. Remember this is not a list for you – this is a list for your clients, potential as well as returning. Everyone’s dollar smells the same.

Once you get those bases covered, go to whites and find some wines people know from traveling. Find good examples of Arneis, Falanghina, Fiano, Frascati, Friulano, Gavi, Greco, Orvieto, Soave Verdicchio and Vermentino. Note I haven’t gone too esoteric yet. These are wines that have good reputations for quality. Seek out good producers and shine a light on them.

Red wise, same thing. Find a good Aglianico, Amarone, Barbaresco, Barbera, Barolo, Brunello, Lambrusco, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola, Primitivo, Super Tuscan, Valpolicella and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Again, these are the basic building blocks of a core-wine list. The fancier wines will come.

Find a good rosé wine, whether it is from the Tuscan Maremma, from Abruzzo, from Trentino, Piedmont or Emilia-Romagna. Offer dry and off-dry versions.

So far, you’re probably saying to yourself, pretty boring. Not if you pick the peaches right. Get these fundamentals down and then you can get into the curating business.

Note: if you are a new wine drinker/taster you might have a tendency to go for fruiter styles of wine, maybe something more like you would find from California. If your food complements the wine, that’s great. But if the chef has a classic touch or a lighter touch, often these big wines won’t match up well. They may seem good to you, but you aren’t the customer – you are the Hospitalian. Buy wines for them and drink the wines you like at home or share them on Instagram or Delectable with your peer group. And by the way, make notes. No one is that good to remember everything they have tasted.

There’s the classic example of the sommelier who left home and went to wine country. You might have seen the type. They seek out the most esoteric wines to talk about, to put on lists and to impress their “followers.” These are people living inside of their heads. They are often loners, people who haven’t been properly socialized. This is not a good career track. By all means, look into little known wines, study them, from white to red to orange. But remember who the list is for – your clients. You want to make people happy – not bewildered.

While I’m on this track – the people who sell you wine, while they might be part of your world, they aren’t necessarily there to make up your social network. They might act like your friend, but they have lives outside of work as well. The best way to maintain a good professional relationship is to not get them too involved in your business. Don’t rely on them to secure you entertainment in the form of sports tickets, concert tickets, visits to gentlemen’s clubs, and monthly (or weekly) dining outings to the newest hot places. Remember, there is no free lunch – there is always tit for tat, somewhere, somehow – try and keep your worlds separate. And when you are hiring people to work with you, don’t see them as potential sexual partners. Find places away from work to go fishing for those kinds of things.

That said, if your budget allows for a deeper selection of wines from Italy, by all means dig into Sicily, Umbria, Valtellina, Valle d’Aoste, Friuli, and the many other beautiful crevices of Italian wine richness.

But – and this is a big but – if you cannot put together an interesting list of Italian wines using the basic fundamental wines, then you haven’t done a good enough job. It’s too easy to put together a dazzling list of wines that no one has ever heard of. The warehouses (and big cities) are full of them. But to craft a list with greatness from Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto along with the other classic zones, that’s a little more demanding, in my opinion.

Make a great list of classic red wines – let someone else figure out how to get all the orange wines “curated” on one list. They’ll get some press, but you’ll get return guests. And that’s what we’re here for – to make our guests happy and satisfied.

This is just the beginning – but chew on this for awhile – I have for 30+ years and have yet to fully master this exercise. It’s a process, not a final destination. But while you are alive and here on this wonderful planet, exercise your mind and your heart and find a way to turn all those wonderful soulful wines into a beautiful thing for those who come to your restaurant. You have Italy on your side – the wine growers and wine makers have done the heavy lifting. The rest is up to you.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy + Hospitalian
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